Lecture 2: Word Clutter Definition
Word Clutter Definition and Impact on Concision
“Word clutter” refers to unnecessary, meaningless, or misleading words and expressions. Like clutter on a desk or in a room, clutter in writing occupies space where it serves no purpose and obstructs our search for whatever we need to find.
Buzzwords and jargon may also qualify as word clutter. Word clutter does not necessarily add to difficulty of understanding. Unlike terminology, the technical vocabulary of a sphere of activity, word clutter may be used not to point to something, but to point away, that is to gloss over or obscure meaning, especially to avoid embarrassing facts.
Word clutter includes words as short as two letters, for example, “to head up a committee,” where “up” can be omitted without losing or changing the meaning. Complicated expressions for simple words are a common type of clutter. Word clutter also includes nonsense language or hackneyed words and phrases that sound important but for all their pompousness fail to provide essential information.
Word clutter impact
Some types of clutter are innocuous: they consume more of the reader’s time than necessary but cause little other inconvenience or harm. But often clutter glosses over mistakes or provides window dressing for a lack of good ideas.
Few things rile critics of writing more than word clutter. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon,” says William Zinsser, a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher whose book On Writing Well has sold 1.5 million copies. “What member of an insurance or medical plan can decipher the brochure explaining his costs and benefits? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain.”
In the past half century since On Writing Well was first published in 1976, technological advances have led to an explosion of information. Getting rid of unnecessary words is vital if for no other reason than to convey a message succinctly before readers move on to something else.
If you had to choose only one thing to learn about writing, I would suggest it be how to rid your work of clutter. In On Writing Well, Zinsser includes a couple of pages from his four or fifth drafts of the book, with markups for word clutter. Every page has at least half a dozen markups. The point Zinsser makes is that weeding out word clutter is a tough job that takes a lot of time and effort, and that there are no short cuts.
Some experts on writing say that good writing is largely the fruit of meticulous editing. Professional writers spend a lot of time editing out extraneous words. Published articles in the most prestigious magazines are likely to have involved several drafts, and at least a couple of editors.
Many of us are unaware of clutter in our writing. So, let us start by identifying a few of the main types of word clutter in this and the next lecture. I go into much greater detail in my online business writing course, “Master the Essential Business Writing Skills in Six weeks,” which you can view here.
The most basic sort of clutter is unnecessary words, such as in redundancies, when a person says the same thing twice, for example, using the suffix in “pre-order,” or placing “personal” before “friend.”
Such redundancies, or tautologies, as well as being unnecessary, sound silly. Here are some examples with comments or alternatives next to them:
absolute guarantee—if a guarantee is not absolute, it is not a guarantee
free gift—if you were to charge for a gift, it would not be a gift
close proximity—means the same as “close”
completely devoid— “devoid”
take turns one after the other—"take turns” means one after another
Complicated expressions for simple words
We frequently see “in the event of,” instead of “if,” and “at this moment in time,” rather than “now.” Because such words are common in business communication, many people conclude that such expressions are needed to sound formal or authoritative.
Not only are they unnecessary, they are often also pompous and risk alienating readers.
Here are a few examples:
acquaint yourself with—find out about, discover
adjacent to—next to
afford an opportunity—let, allow
as a consequence of—because of
as of the date of—beginning from
Words and phrases that add to complexity
It is bad enough for readers when they must wade through complicated phrases where short, everyday words would do the same job. Sometimes, business communications add to the complexity of already complicated ideas through word clutter.
Financial service professions frequently use the phrase “on the supply side” when they simply mean “supply.” Investment-bank economists are prone to use the expression “downside risks to our forecast.” The phrase suggests that if their forecast turns to be off the mark, it will not be because of flaws in the economists’ methodology or because they missed something important. Instead, the expression shifts the blame to the impersonal agency of a “downside risk.” There is no risk to the forecast. The risk is to readers who put too much store in economists’ predictions.
Shifts in language
“To reach out to” no longer suggests overcoming a barrier to communicating with someone, as it once did. The expression now substitutes for banal actions such as to email, telephone, write a letter, or send a text. I am in two minds about using “to reach out to.” As a matter of principle, conciseness, precision, and transparency, I object to the expression. However, I find myself using it as a courtesy because people expect to hear the expression. If you simply say, “I am phoning to,” the person at the other line may be less inclined to help.
“To reach out to,” raises another theme. We all yearn for colourful, vivid language to break the monotony of expression. But we are also lazy. Once an expression takes hold, it is hard to dislodge, even though it no longer does the job of breaking up the monotony of the ordinary. It becomes a cliché.